Tuesday, December 18, 2018

They Shall Not Grow Old

How you see a movie can have a huge effect on your opinion of it. This one, for instance, started twenty minutes late, and it took about three tries for the theater to get the right lens and formatting on so that it was actually projecting in proper 3D. It was tremendously frustrating, especially for the first bits, where you're thinking that maybe the restoration not being perfect is part of the gag, that it will snap into focus at some point - which arguably happened, with the film going from black-and-white to color as the narrative reached Europe. They eventually got it right and gave us readmission tickets, but that's potentially a good third of the movie that I did not enjoy as much as I should have, and not much opportunity to give it another shot: There is one more screening date (the 27th), and given that the apparently-region-free Blu-ray from the UK does not appear to include a 3D version, so… Hope for one from Hong Kong or South Korea?

Some of the behind the scenes/introduction material is interesting, though, especially when you see how Jackson mentioned that the Imperial War Museum called him to collaborate on a project, but it had to use this footage in a unique and original way, which left him at something of a loss; there are only so many ways to make a documentary, and I don't know that I love this one the way Jackson does. It is, however, enjoyable to watch him talk about it; he's almost nonchalant about the process of restoring the film, talking about how when you find the right right speed for a piece of silent film, it suddenly just clicks. Then he goes on, talking about how they would match regimental seals to the part of Britain where they came from so that they could get the right accent when they did a bit of ADR. Then you see them starting to do Foley work, up to getting out a piece of WWI artillery that Jackson owns to make sure it's the right sound. There's a little twinkle as he acknowledges that, yeah, this is kind of odd.

Jackson supposedly had a World War I feature in development at some point, but it doesn't look to be active now. I hope he gets to make one, because the earnest love for the material is wonderful, and the ease with which he puts together a good team and does amazing technical things. It's kind of interesting that both this and Mortal Engines arrived the same weekend - neither really brilliant, but I admire the heck out of how Jackson and his companies sweat a lot of details without making it look like a chore.

They Shall Not Grow Old

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2018 in AMC Boston Common #14 (Fathom Events, RealD 3D DCP)

It won't be the case for all who watch They Shall Not Grow Old, but for many viewers, some of the most interesting material will not be in the documentary itself, but the half-hour "making-of" package that is being shown afterward as part of it's two-date American release (and which will likely be included on the eventual disc). The assembly of World War I footage is itself impressive and informative, but it's the way director Peter Jackson puts it together, transforming it into a color three-dimensional film, that sets it apart.

The film is built out of footage from the the United Kingdom's Imperial War Museum (roughly 100 hours shot between 1914 and 1918) and interviews with veterans mostly done around the half-centenary for the BBC. Jackson has whittled that down to 90 minutes that focuses on the typical experience for a soldier during the war, from how many who enlisted were younger than the supposed minimum age of 19, to the six weeks of training, to serving on the front lines in dirty, dangerous trenches while much of the action was actually determined by the use of artillery. There is, at least in retrospect, little animosity toward the German soldiers and a sense of being drained after the war ended.

Jackson limits the film to the men on the ground rather than spreading his attention out to include planes, leadership, or the homefront, so he certainly hasn't made the definitive WWI doc (I am curious as to whether the Imperial War Museum and BBC have the footage necessary for this to be the first in a series), but that's generally okay. The steady stream of narration that bridges bits of footage leaves him and the audience with little time to have their attention stray. Though there is a bit of repetition at times, he generally avoids the feeling that his focus is too narrow, and the combination of grandfatherly voices and unglamorous visuals gets the experience across without putting the soldiers on too much of a pedestal. The nature of cobbling the film together from footage taken over the course of the war and a hundred relatively anonymous voices does mean that the film is never able to get across the grueling length of it - it feels like something which lasted months rather than years - which seems like something Jackson and company might have wanted to include; piecing together the story of an average soldier can leave one a bit disconnected to any of them in particular

Full review at EFC.

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